Social support comes in many forms, but broadly covers ‘support accessible to an individual through social ties to other individuals, groups, and the larger community’ (Lin et al. 1979).
Informal social support often comes from family, friends and community—people close to the individual.
Formal support refers to services and programs provided by government and non-government organisations, designed to enhance wellbeing. For children, social support provided to their parents, families and carers is also essential as it can influence the quality of social support they get directly and play a crucial role in how a child develops and their overall wellbeing (Department of Health 2019; Zubrick 2008).
Measures such as family cohesion and social networks are commonly used to examine social support. So too are measures of factors that may influence the nature of social support available to a child, such as parental health or drug use.
Drawing on sources providing different perspectives of social support, this domain aims to provide an overview of the types and quality of informal social support structures for children. Information on formal support provided to children could be the topic of future reports, noting some national data gaps.
This domain has significant overlap with other domains. Strong social support can be a protective factor from negative outcomes discussed in other domains (for example, neighbourhood safety, family economic situation and housing stress). In combination with individual circumstances, it can also potentially impact the quality and extent of other social support (WHO 2017; Worthen & Ahern 2013; Umberson & Montez 2010).
Many topics covered in this domain are also interrelated and there is overlap in the data presented throughout topic-based sections. For example, children who have strong family cohesion (families) may also have strong social networks.
The governance supporting children’s access to social support
While parents, carers and other members of a child’s social network, for example friends and other family, play the primary role in providing children with adequate and appropriate social support, government and the wider community also play an important role.
Australian Commonwealth legislation provides the foundation for delivery of a wide range of formal social support to parents and families, according to specific criteria. Legislation related to social security (Human Services (Centrelink) Act 1997) and paid parental leave (Paid Parental Leave Act 2010) are some examples.
A range of other formal social support services are provided by states and territories and/or local governments, for example in the areas of disability, family support and community services.
Related national strategies for children
Ensuring that children and their families have access to quality informal and formal social support is a priority in national strategies and/or initiatives relevant to this domain (Table 1).
The sections in this domain include a number of established national indicators; however, consistent national reporting is not available in some areas due to lack of a suitable data source and/or indicator. For more information on national data gaps, see Data gaps.
A number of topics were not included for other reasons but could be considered for future updates.
Children’s subjective view of their social support
There are currently limited national data on children’s view of their social support to support population monitoring. Subjective data have been included for a number of topics; however there are some gaps relating to how children personally view their wellbeing, their community involvement and topics relating to family and community functioning. For example, there is no overarching national measure from the child’s perspective on how well their family gets along, or the strength and quality of their personal social networks.
Cultural identity is an integral part of wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse children and families. Development of cultural identity is supported by formal and informal social support structures.
Pathways, transitions and outcomes
National data on the longer-term outcomes of children receiving different types of formal and informal social support are lacking. Improved availability of data on some formal support, such as family support services, would assist. Sensitively combining information from multiple datasets, for example Centrelink recipient data with other data sources like health services or education, could improve understanding of the impact of formal social support on children.
Data on social networks for children from priority populations, such as children with disability, living in out-of-home care, or in shared parental care, are limited. The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC) could be explored in future updates as a way of improving information on Indigenous children for topics covered in this domain.
The families section reports on some aspects of family functioning; however there are some information gaps. For example, there is no nationally representative estimate of the number of children in shared care, or comprehensive data on the time a child spends with parents. Other areas which could be further explored include measures of warmth, responsiveness, sensitivity and security/safety provided by family members.
All sections in this domain highlight the importance of parents, parenting practices and parent characteristics. However, parenting is a complex topic which is difficult to measure. Factors increasing the risk of poor parenting, for example data on children exposed to domestic violence, are limited.
Play and extracurricular activities
Some evidence shows the benefits of unstructured play without strict time restrictions for children. While some data are available, there is no regular and comprehensive reporting on how children typically spend their time, including in unstructured play. Similarly, children can further develop their social networks through participating in activities outside the home and school. While the AusPlay survey is a source for children participating in sport, there is currently no national population-level monitoring of participation in other extracurricular activities such as music, language or dance.